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Funding Successful Collaborations

Professor Wei-Skillern’s decade of research on successful nonprofit collaborations highlights key success factors that closely align with the behavioral changes required for collective impact initiatives to succeed.

In studying successful nonprofit networks, I have found that there are four key operating principles that are critical to collaboration success. These soft skills are the ‘secret sauce’ that differentiates mediocre collaborations from those that achieve transformational change. Surprisingly, the operating principles of funders who have successfully supported networks differ dramatically from common practice in the philanthropic sector.

  1. Mission not OrganizationThe Energy Foundation was founded in 1991 as a collaboration among Rockefeller, Pew and McArthur Foundations. With a $100 million commitment over 10 years, the founding donors provided patient capital, agreed that EF should be governed by an expert board rather than large donors, and encouraged the founding executives to be entrepreneurial and let the work of the foundation speak for itself (and to other potential donors) rather than get caught up in building the organization’s infrastructure. Their foresight enabled EF to catalyze the growth of energy philanthropy such that billions are now being committed to the field worldwide, though EF’s own budget has remained relatively modest, amounting to $100 million annually. EF’s goal has always been leveraged impact, not organizational scale. 
  2. Trust not Control - EF makes grants to regional groups that carry out energy policy work, then helps them coordinate so they can learn and adapt. Sometimes, EF grants to coalitions of nonprofits which are then able to regrant the funding according to how the local nonprofit leaders think the resources can best be utilized across the coalition. EF president, Eric Heitz describes the foundation’s operating philosophy as ‘service to the field.’ He notes, “We believe that people who are closer to the challenges are often in a better position to make the strategic call.” This is the ultimate in unrestricted funding--allowing the grantee full flexibility to use the funds not only internally, but also through its peers.
  3. Humility not Brand - The Energy Foundation actively seeks to give credit to grantees, instead of trying to take the credit for itself. Indeed, I commonly refer to EF as the biggest foundation you’ve never heard of. It has been tremendously skilled at building the broader field of energy philanthropy yet it is little known. Its track record of success was instrumental in attracting multibillion dollar commitments to catalyze a network of similar foundations globally (see www.ClimateWorks.org). To get work done effectively through a network, participants need to build a reputation for making others look good rather than building a brand for its own sake.
  4. Node not Hub - Although EF has no endowment and must fundraise annually for its own operations, it routinely suggests that donors give directly to others in the field if it is not able to add value. Furthermore, EF routinely invests resources toward field building without an expectation of a direct benefit. For example, EF has lent its executive staff for months at a time to peer organizations to develop capacity for working through networks among their counterparts globally. Eric Heitz will often give presentations to educate other donors to give to the energy field, even if funding for EF is not forthcoming. The goal should be to grow the ‘market’ rather than to to be the market leader.

While there are untold numbers of funders who promote collaboration among their grantees, the number of donors who live and breathe these principles in practice and as expectations among their grantees is rather small. If funders really expect to see more collaborative behavior in the field, a good place to start might be with themselves.

About Jane Wei-Skillern: Jane Wei-Skillern is an associate adjunct faculty member at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and a Lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business where she teaches social entrepreneurship and studies leadership and management of social enterprises. She has examined the topics of nonprofit growth and management of multi-site nonprofits, and for nearly a decade, has been focused on nonprofit networks. Her research on nonprofit networks examines how nonprofit leaders that focus less on building their own institutions and instead invest to build strategic networks beyond their organizational boundaries, can achieve dramatic gains in mission impact with the same or fewer resources.

You can watch the video Jane moderated at FSG’s Collective Impact conference in 2011, here (segment 3).